Democrats Have an Uphill Climb to Win Back Michigan From Trump
Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, speaks during a campaign in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. (Photographer: Bridget Bennett/Bloomberg )

Democrats Have an Uphill Climb to Win Back Michigan From Trump

(Bloomberg) -- Democrats say they’ve got lots of answers for Michigan’s woes -- automotive and agriculture sectors suffering from the trade war, racial economic inequalities, and a lack of affordable health care. But they face a skeptical audience when they arrive for this week’s debates.

Hillary Clinton in 2016 was the first Democratic presidential candidate to lose the state in 28 years, by a slim 11,000 votes. The party seems to understand it can’t take Michigan for granted this time around.

Democrats Have an Uphill Climb to Win Back Michigan From Trump

State and local officials want the candidates to know that they need to not just show up, but to show up with a clear message on key working-class issues like health care, trade and jobs. Even with the U.S. economy growing, plant closings in Michigan and Ohio have many factory workers on edge.

“The Democrats didn’t do a very good job of talking to working men and women,” Democratic U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell said in an interview. “Voters will want to know that they will have a good job and that it’s secure and that they will have health care coverage.”

The Democrats are already heeding that advice, as many of them canvassed the region the week before the debate and telegraphed what they hope to convey during the debates Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

Autos, Housing, Water

Nine of the candidates were at the NAACP annual convention in Detroit on July 24. Joe Biden earned the endorsement of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, in part by professing his friendship to the auto industry, while Elizabeth Warren talked about affordable urban housing. Beto O’Rourke went to Flint and talked about the city’s water crisis. Last week, Senator Kamala Harris and two Michigan lawmakers unveiled the Water Justice Act, which would allocate $250 billion to ensure access to clean water.

Democrats Have an Uphill Climb to Win Back Michigan From Trump

“The way that you win the voters in Michigan is visit them often and talk to them,” said Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party. “Get here. Get out into the field and talk the voters regularly and listen to them.”

Race will be a key issue in Detroit, which is 83% black. Education and health care are also on the list.

But nothing tops the economy for importance among blue-collar voters, many of whom went for President Donald Trump in 2016 based on his promise to bring manufacturing jobs back from Mexico and China, Dingell said. Trump seized on the issue while Clinton talked more about creating green jobs to replace factory work.

The Economy

With unemployment at 3.8% nationally, dinging Trump on the economy may be tough for Democrats. But in Michigan and the upper Midwest, plant closings by General Motors Co., planned cuts amid weak profits from Ford Motor Co., and a higher jobless rate of 4.4% means there could be some room for gains, said Matt Grossmann, associate professor of political science at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

“There is a transition back to class politics,” Grossmann said. “The Democrats were traditionally the party of the working class. Trump was able to neutralize that and now they’re trying to get back to that.”

Unemployment is 8.8% in Detroit, double the state’s average, and there’s a strong sense that prosperity is concentrated in seven miles near downtown, among white-collar workers at big employers like GM and Quicken Loans Inc., Grossmann said. Democrats will try to exploit that disparity and get the city’s voters to come out for them.

A recent poll from the Detroit Regional Chamber found that 51% of likely Michigan voters think the national economy is on the right track and 62% believe the state economy is on the right track. But the poll showed a stark racial and gender divide. Some 62% of women and 83% of black voters said they believe the national economy is on the wrong track.

Tricky Trade

Trade will be a particularly tricky issue for the Democrats. Trump has a tentative deal to replace Nafta with the so-called USMCA. The new agreement requires higher U.S. content to secure lower tariffs on goods imported from Mexico, but so far it hasn’t caused many carmakers or parts suppliers to relocate work to the U.S.

Democrats Have an Uphill Climb to Win Back Michigan From Trump

Dingell said the candidates will have to show what they can do to bring work back. “Nafta was a bad deal for this state,” she said. “I want to see us get a new trade deal.”

But Democrats have struggled to articulate a clear trade policy. While they’re quick to blame Trump for any negative consequences from trade conflicts with China and others, they sidestep when asked for specifics. In particular, Democrats find themselves in a bind between appealing to rural voters, who are likely to favor free trade, and voters who want to protect their jobs in manufacturing.

There’s room to appeal to union voters with a tougher stance on Mexican trade. When Trump announced the USMCA, United Auto Workers President Gary Jones was quick to denounce it as too little to help American workers.

“General Motors has already signaled that the ‘New’ Nafta is not strong enough, as it stands today, to deter them from moving products and taking advantage of low-cost labor,” Jones wrote in November, after GM announced it would idle four U.S. plants. “We were hopeful that this new agreement would rein in the corporate greed that has bled manufacturing in the United States. The ‘New’ NAFTA, as it stands now, is not strong enough to protect American workers.”

Health Care

Health care has become one of the most divisive policy battles in the Democratic Party, where candidates are split over the role of government. Under Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan, the popular health-insurance program for Americans over 65 would be expanded and private insurance eliminated. Warren and Kamala Harris also support the approach.

Democrats Have an Uphill Climb to Win Back Michigan From Trump

Biden opposes that path, arguing it’s ill-advised to knock people off private insurance if they like it. He calls for preserving Obamacare but adding a public option. Sanders and Biden have been trading barbs over the past week, with the Vermont senator accusing Barack Obama’s vice-president of “fear-mongering” by supporting private insurance.

It’ll be a divisive issue even among Democratic voters, Dingell said. While low-income voters may not have insurance and thus support a government option, union workers and white collar employees at the carmakers often have good health coverage.

Politics Over Policy

Despite the importance of Michigan, some Democratic strategists warned the national stakes of this week’s debates -- and the millions of voters watching at home -- could overshadow any meaningful conversation about local and state issues.

The Democratic National Committee has raised the qualifying standards for the next debate, and Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic operative, said candidates who’ve yet to gain traction will be looking for breakout moments. Only ten of the 20 candidates appearing on stage this week have qualified or are likely to qualify for the September debate in Houston.

“The biggest thing that is happening in this round you’re going to see very aggressive shots taken from just about anybody who’s in jeopardy of not being on the stage next time,” Trippi said.

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